One of my most vivid childhood memories is a Christmas where all I wanted was a gymnastic Barbie. She was a flexible doll, wearing pink and had a gold medal around her neck. I waited all year for this doll. So when Father Christmas (I can’t remember which distant family member was forced to dress up that year), finished handing out toys to all my cousins I got so sad as I stood there empty handed. Eventually, before he was about to leave with his empty present sack, I asked “And me?” with big sad tears in my eyes, and he looked inside his sack and right down at the bottom of the bag was my present. The shape of a Barbie doll package through its wrapping. I remember my elation. It was the best present I have ever received.
The day I met Madiba was like my only Father Christmas memory, I cherish it and what it represented to me as a child.
My dad used to work for Unisys, and I remember him telling us how he was fortunate enough to have met the then President of South Africa, Nelson Mandela, and what an amazing man he was. He was able to take him on a tour of a facility that Unisys had supplied the IT for; it was the Juvenile Detention Centre for the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund and my dad was the Project Director on that project.
One day, upon my father leaving on a business trip to San Francisco in 1998, my mum took my two older sisters and I to the airport to see him off. We were sitting in the food court; I still remember that it was the Juicy Lucy, having something to drink before he left. Suddenly we started hearing a bit of a commotion and people shouting out “We love you!” I turned around and there he was; Nelson Mandela, in person, waving to the people who started to see him. To my memory he had a few bodyguards, but they were hanging back to give him an opportunity to say hello to everyone.
I remember my dad getting up in a hurry, and he said to my sisters and I: “Come. Come now, you will never get this opportunity again and you will remember this for the rest of your lives!” We got up, and in a blur, we rushed up to him as a crowd started to form. I remember Mr. Mandela being so gracious and humbled by the love and attention he was being given, he was so patient at people trying to grab and pull at him.
He shook everyone’s hand. I remember Tara, the middle sister of my family, standing next to me, and my dad behind me. He greeted Tara, and nodded to my dad and asked, “How are you?” and almost missed me. Suddenly, he looked down at little me and asked, “Have I greeted you yet?” to which I squeaked “No”. He shook my little hand, and with that he was gone. I remember him acknowledging me, but not much else.
I remember the excitement afterwards and my dad kept saying that it was so important that we got that opportunity. After that, I don’t remember much.
Now, 15 years later, and on Madiba’s birthday I tried to recall the memories with my family, my memory is not enough for me.
Tara, who is now 28 years old, has quite a vivid memory of what it was like; she said she remembers him to be really tall with an incredibly happy face, she said his hands were rough as he shook her hand and asked how she was. She said, at the time, she never realised the significance or the magnitude of it, but she appreciates it for what it was now, all these years later. She remembers that his focus was mainly on the children, and how happy he was.
Bobbi, my oldest sister who is now 31 (almost) said that she was too shy to go up to him. She says she doesn’t know why she was scared and shy, she said she saw him and he had such a warm and welcoming face when she saw him greeting us. She immediately regretted not going up to him with us, and she still regrets it now. That breaks my heart. But she said that even at the time, she knew the magnitude of who he was and what he represented.
It was important for me to share these memories with my family, because today, on his 95th birthday, I am able to say that I met him. Something not everyone gets to say they have had the opportunity to do. Tara so aptly said that she remembers me looking up at Mr. Mandela the way I looked at Santa when he pulled my Barbie from the bottom of the bag. Meeting him is a memory I will never ever forget, and will cherish it for the rest of my life.